Record: 4-5 (2-5 Section 8AA)
I wrote back in December that I had no clue what to think after Crookston’s first two games. The Pirates have now played seven more games, so when I say that I still don’t quite know what to make of them, it has a lot more meaning.
Crookston’s four wins have come against teams with a 9-24 record. The five teams that have beaten the Pirates have combined to start out at 31-8. A schedule of mostly challenging opponents mixed in with cupcakes means they haven’t gotten many opportunities to define themselves one way or another, so it’d be unfair to render too many definitive judgements on this team.
But we can still look for hints.
At this point last year, Crookston sat at 3-5, having gotten there in eerily similar fashion by playing essentially the same teams as it has this year. That team ended up slumping to an 8-19 record.
If you hope this year’s team can avoid a similar fate, you’ll find optimism in its 3-2 road record — the two defeats coming against an unbeaten Perham team and an overtime heartbreaker in Thief River Falls. If you’re of the pessimistic sort, however, you have just as much to choose from: Crookston’s defense is the second-worst, scoring-wise, in Section 8AA (68.7 points allowed per game) and it’s gone 2-5 against section opponents.
The Pirates don’t have the talent or athleticism of a Perham or East Grand Forks, but Caden Osborn — averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds per game — is playing elite basketball and Carter Bruggeman, Jack Garmen, Walker Winjum and Easton Tangquist have all shown the ability to score in the backcourt. Crookston needs some sort of X-factor if it wants to compete with the top of Section 8AA, but it might have the pieces of a middle-of-the-pack squad. All there is to do is wait and see.
Record: 9-2 (5-2 Section 8AA)
The Pirates took their lumps during a challenging stretch in late December: first with a 74-65 loss at five-time defending Section 8AA champions Roseau, followed by the Fergus Falls Holiday Classic, where they split against Hawley and Class AAAA Coon Rapids. Friday night, however, Crookston rolled to a painless, stress-free 66-14 win at winless Bagley where everyone played, everyone scored and everyone went home happy.
You could characterize the Pirates’ upcoming stretch as an interlude of sorts. They’ll play just one section game — Monday night against 3-8 Park Rapids, followed by a solid Virginia team at home, and then three straight games against Class A opponents before resuming section play against Perham. It’s the perfect opportunity for them to build off of Friday night’s positivity and find their stride again before the most meaningful games of the season.
Crookston may have been knocked back in the direction of earth recently, but the Pirates were playing elite basketball before then, and very much looked the part of section title contenders. Really, losses to Roseau and Hawley don’t change that. They just laid out the margins between looking the part and actually playing the part.
“The number one thing that we figured out was we need to rebound the ball better,” said head coach Darin Zimmerman. “We gotta pay attention more to it and emphasize it more, because I think if the rebounding margin would have been even or would have been in our favor, we probably win the Hawley game and we probably win the Roseau game. We just gave those teams extra opportunities, and they're good teams and they make you pay for that.”
Zimmerman has preached the “little things,” and the Pirates have tried to take that to heart. While Crookston won’t beat every team by 52 points or even come close, Zimmerman thought that his team’s defensive rotations and ball movement were much improved on Friday night. Those are the kind of things that translate against stronger opponents than the Flyers — read: Roseau and Hawley.
Record: 0-12 (0-4 Section 8A)
After Crookston’s 3-1 defeat to Eveleth-Gilbert on Dec. 28, one of the Golden Bears’ coaches went over to Josh Hardy and gave him some words of encouragement.
“(He) sought us out after the game to tell us, ‘Make sure your players know they are not an 0-10 team,’ ” the Pirates’ head coach said last Monday, “and that they’ve played Hermantown, Greenway and Thief River Falls and we were in the top tier of teams they’ve played this year. We know that as a coaching staff, but it’s nice to hear it from someone else.”
Hardy added: “We’re in a good spot right now with our game, and it feels like we’re right on the cusp of going on a nice run of hockey here.”
That run still awaits.
Crookston lost at Detroit Lakes on Friday night, falling to 0-4 in Section 8A despite outshooting the Lakers 37-20. Its struggles continued Saturday with a 4-2 defeat at Fergus Falls. Opponents’ praise or not, there’s no way around the fact that the Pirates have yet to win a game this season.
That glaring truth aside, there’s still plenty of time and plenty of precedent. At this juncture a season ago, Crookston was 2-10-1 against a challenging schedule. That’s been the case this year, too: the Pirates haven’t faced anyone who you’d call a pushover, as they’ve hosted Little Falls, Warroad, East Grand Forks, Thief River Falls and Class AA Mounds View and taken a tough road trip to the Twin Cities.
While you can chalk up a good portion of the Pirates’ start to a brutal schedule, the time to start actually winning is now. Crookston can’t do anything about its worst start in years, but with eight section opponents in its next 10 games, it still has lots of opportunities to earn a solid playoff seeding.
Record: 6-10 (1-3 Section 8A)
Judging how the Pirates’ season has gone, relative to expectations, is an interesting exercise.
By Dec. 21, Crookston had already won more games than it had in any season since 2013-14. After the program itself was in jeopardy two years ago, the Pirates started building for the future, and this season, the result has been more than just a blueprint — an actual foundation rests. Nora Peterson is becoming a star, Cassie Solheim, Raina Satrom and Morgan Nelson are excelling as eighth-graders and Grace Koshney has brought stability in goal.
There’s no doubt that Crookston’s best days are ahead of it. That’s a statement with two meanings. During their four-game winning streak in December, the Pirates experienced the positive meaning of it. Their last three games have shown the less-positive one.
In Crookston’s darkest days, North Dakota teams were its only really attainable source of victories — seven of the Pirates’ 19 wins came vs. teams from across the Red River. Losses to three North Dakota teams in a row — Jamestown (who Crookston beat on Nov. 26), Grand Forks and Devils Lake — are a troubling sign.
“After that stretch we had where we beat Bemidji and won four in a row, you saw that it was going up and you had high hopes for the rest of the season,” said head coach Tim Moe. “ … We were hoping we'd have more wins by now. We need to be better.”
To reiterate: there is no way to characterize the Pirates’ season thus far as anything but a success. But expectations change as quickly as a team’s fortunes do, and Crookston, having dropped three straight games in which it outshot its opponents by a combined 80-47, goes into the final third of its season facing an unfamiliar feeling: disappointment.
“This is the time it's gonna test us here to see what kinda group of kids we have,” Moe said. “How are they gonna fight through this? Are they gonna just stand around and not fight to get better? We just need to do a much better job from coaches, on out to the kids, to fight through this little valley that we're in.”
Record: 8-7 (3-1 Section 8A)
While the Pirates’ record is behind where it’s been the last two season (they went 12-5 in dual meets each of the last two years), Crookston is in a good place behind wrestlers it can count on.
Zach Brown was the team’s headliner coming into the season after placing fourth in the state tournament last season. Brown’s stayed on track as a junior, as he’s gone 16-7 and took sixth place at 126 pounds in the prestigious Rumble on the Red in Fargo over Christmas weekend.
Nolan Dans, Ethan Boll and Ethan Bowman have more than made names for themselves as well. Dans, who went 19-18 last season, might be the Pirates’ most improved wrestler: he’s gone 25-6 while alternating between 120 and 126 pounds, becoming a force thanks to his quickness and athleticism. Boll, a freshman, is 24-4 this season at 182 pounds and looks set to be one of Crookston’s cornerstones for a long time. Bowman should be another one of those cornerstones, with a 19-7 record at 113 pounds in his ninth-grade season.
Lately, Cam Weiland (20-9, 132 pounds) — one of the team’s captains — and Braxton Volker (19-8, 138 pounds) have come on strong as well. Weiland and Volker both won all four of their matches at Friday’s Mahnomen-Waubun dual to make the all-tournament team, and they might be the Pirates’ hottest wrestlers at the moment: Volker was second, and Weiland was fourth, in the JV division of the Rumble on the Red.
With so much talent in the lower weights, Crookston is a guarantee for a hot start almost every night. If the Pirates’ middle and heavy weights start to find similar success, they’ll be one of the most dangerous teams in Section 8A — and maybe put itself on track to host the first round of the playoffs on Feb. 11.
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